He shakes his head, still staring into my eyes as though if he stared long enough, he could somehow scale the language barrier currently plaguing our shallow excuse for a conversation.
Another shake of the head. “Of course he doesn’t speak Spanish. You’re in northern Romania,” I thought. Our mission team had spent months preparing for impending interactions with Romanian youth. Nevertheless, without a translator, my working lexicon of four Romanian words was not proving conducive to sustainable dialogue.
My eyes are hastily scanning the immediate horizon, to locate any individual capable of translating my English into Romanian, when my feet answer the dilemma. It’s -3°F, but through six inches of snow a frozen soccer ball finds my right foot. When I look up, five young Romanian faces suggest with excited gestures that I am to join their game. I turn back to Marion, the Romanian youth with whom I was previously attempting to converse.
I spent two weeks in Europe this past Christmas break. During that time, I spoke Romanian, English, Spanish, even a bit of French and Hungarian. But the most effective language I spoke during those 14 days was soccer. It required no translation, no explanation, no undue direction, because it had everything to do with action, and nothing to do with formulated dialogue. For the first and last time, common language did not prove a prerequisite for common experience.
We kid ourselves if and when we purport that the pinnacle accomplishment of athletic achievement is represented by a final score. Sports are, by definition, relational. Common athletic expertise creates an organic link between participants, regardless of statistics, of uniforms, of the athletes’ respective median incomes, of everything save for shared technique.
I believe any manual dedicated to effective evangelization is forever incomplete without specific inclusion of athletic movement. The Bible – the most widely distributed, fundamental instruction for effective evangelization – is frequented by several examples of athletic activity. In Genesis 32:24, Jacob physically wrestles an angel, whereupon his name is changed to Israel. In Paul’s letters to the Hebrews and to the Corinthians, he compares the pursuit of everlasting life to a race. In 2 Samuel 6, David dances before the Ark of the Covenant.
To celebrate sports because of a favorable final score is to completely overlook the potency of sports to bridge otherwise uncrossable waters. Evangelization is essentially the sharing of religious material, in the hopes that those individuals to whom we evangelize choose to accept said material as their own, that they go so far as to fashion their futures after such ideologies. Because evangelization is such a vulnerable undertaking, all who evangelize seek common ground upon which to begin. Jesus Christ was no exception, offering parables with concepts fully graspable by his listeners.
Sports are that common ground. If we allow them to be, they are an ideal platform upon which, even wordlessly, we may convey the truth of the Gospels to athletes otherwise unaware of how central a role Christ plays in each of our lives. At the end of my life, God won’t ask me for the final score. He’ll ask me what I did with it.